Holyrood Attack on the Right to Protest
There are serious concerns about the freedom to protest in Scotland after Holyrood announced plans which could ban activists from gathering at the Scottish Parliament. Holyrood is changing its legal status to make it easier for the police to remove protesters. Scottish Parliament bosses have asked the Home Office to designate the building and its grounds as a “protected site” in the interests of national security. From 1 October 2021 The Scottish Parliament building and surrounding land at Holyrood will be added to the sites covered by the The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 in Scotland (SOCPA). See legislation here. This is a serious attack on civil liberties and the right to peaceful protest. As human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar has said: “There was a huge outcry when Westminster stopped 100s of years of ‘right to protest’ outside Parliament, so why are we copying them by banning protest outside Holyrood?” This is all at the request of the cross party Corporate Body within Holyrood and appears to be solely directed at being able to control protest. Jane Tallents reports.
It is not likely, as some are suggesting, that all protests outside the parliament will be banned. It will however make it a criminal offence to remain on the parliamentary estate “without lawful authority”. Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone said that “in practical terms this offers grounds for removing those on site in contravention” of Holyrood’s estate management policy. The big question is who sets that policy and who decides when it is being contravened. The Scottish Parliament Corporate Body has asked officials to work up a protocol between themselves and Police Scotland “which will set out how and when powers to arrest or remove persons from the site will be invoked and the essential role that the SPCB will play in such decisions.”
Previously activists who have occupied the debating chamber, chained themselves to the outside of the building or climbed on the roof or entrance canopy have been arrested for a variety of alleged offenses from Breach of the Peace to Reckless Endangerment. Although the new SOCPA legislation has a maximum penalty of £5000 fine or a year in jail after a conviction which is less than the maximum for other charges the reality is that peaceful protest does not ever get punished by anywhere near the maximum.
What is more concerning is that up to now protesters finding themselves in court could offer a variety of defenses about the reasonableness of their actions and the efforts they made to avoid putting anyone in danger or disrupting innocent bystanders. The judge would have to balance the impact of a demonstration with the rights people have to protest. With the introduction of this new legislation we enter new territory “if a person enters, or is on, the site designated in this Order without lawful authority they will commit an offense under section 129(1) of that Act.”
When the police decide to tell you to leave and you don’t (or maybe they won’t even give you that chance) you could be arrested and the courts would automatically find you guilty.
The Herald article quotes Alison Johnson saying that the change brings Holyrood into line with Westminster. In fact when SOCPA came in in 2005 it made protest within a kilometer of Westminster illegal unless you applied for police permission at least a week in advance. However, it was repealed in 2011 after it was shown to be unworkable. Mark Thomas organised mass ‘lone demos’ peaking with 2,486 DEMO’S WITHIN THE SOCPA ZONE IN ONE DAY! That was more paperwork than the police wanted to deal with!
Now provisions in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 create a ‘controlled area’ area around the Westminster parliament where the unauthorised use of loudspeakers, the erecting of tents and the use of ‘sleeping equipment’ is prohibited.
Byelaws of the Greater London Authority (GLA) require protestors to seek written permission from the GLA to hold a demonstration on Parliament Square Garden.
Up to now SOCPA only applies to nuclear sites in Scotland which just means Faslane and Coulport. After initial nervousness from the usual activists about it meaning much higher penalties three women climbed over the Faslane fence and were taken to Dumbarton Sheriff Court in March 2008 and prosecuted by the head Procurator Fiscal. One was found not guilty because she was still on top of the fence when she was arrested. The other two were found guilty but then admonished with the judge suggested the PF had taken a sledge hammer to crack a nut. At that point the PF appeared to go back to lesser charges and the pot luck of the District/JP court in Helensburgh!
“A full impact assessment has not been produced for this instrument as no, or no significant, impact on the private, voluntary or public sector is foreseen.”
Many of us from the myriad campaigns who have protested at Holyrood since it was built feel the impact could be a devastating blow to democracy. Watch this space.
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